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Lyrical Illinois Latino Voices 

Trailblazer of the Day | Sunday, September 22, 2013

David Hernández, Sandra Cisneros, Achy Obejas

Illinois has always been a fertile place for writers. From Sandburg and Algren to Brooks and Terkel, the Prairie State brings out the best in journalists, poets, composers and novelists. Today, we celebrate three great Latino wordsmiths: David Hernández, Sandra Cisneros and Achy Obejas.

Called “Chicago’s Unofficial Poet Laureate”, David Hernandez died in February, 2013, at age 66.

A native of Cidra, Puerto Rico, Hernández came to Illinois as a boy, residing in Wrigleyville, then the center of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community. He began writing at age 11 and continued while at Chicago’s Lake View High School. He worked as a community organizer and youth counselor, and was a founder of the Latino Arts Movement. In 1997, he read a poem to a million people in Grant Park celebrating Chicago’s Sesquicentennial.

Hernández wrote about everyday people and experiences familiar to Chicagoans: the back of an L rider’s head, a Riverview excursion, neon-reflected snow drifts.

Hernández knew the new power words could take on when set to music; his Afro-Caribe ensemble jazz band - Street Sounds - was a beloved fixture in Chicago’s music scene for four decades. He was the first recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Outstanding Poet of Illinois Award.

In one collection of his work – The Urban Poems – Hernández declared, “Hey, Chi-Town, you are the people!”

Sandra Cisneros (1954-) was born in Chicago, the granddaughter of a veteran of the Mexican Revolution. Her family migrated between Chicago and Mexico City until they bought a home in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, the setting for Cisneros’s 1984 coming-of-age novel, The House on Mango Street.

Cisneros began writing poetry at an early age. After attending Chicago’s Josephinum Academy, she earned a B.A. at Loyola University of Chicago and an MFA at University of Iowa. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1981 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995.

Cisneros has lived in San Antonio, Texas, in recent years, where she helps aspiring writers through the Macondo Foundation (named for the town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude). A Los Angeles school is named for her.

Lyrical tales about inner city life and the immigrant experience are eloquently shared in The House on Mango Street, which won the 1985 American Book Award, was the featured book in the “One Book, One Chicago” citywide reading club and has sold two million copies. Speaking as Esperanza Cordero, she says, “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness. It means waiting…It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.”

Achy Obejas (1956-) was born in Havana, Cuba, and emigrated to Michigan City, Indiana, at age six. After attending Indiana University, she moved to Chicago in 1979 to work as a reporter.

A versatile writer with a wry tone, Obejas received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for her poetry in 1986, and in 1989, won the Peter Lisagor Award for political coverage. In 2008, she translated into Spanish Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

At age 39, Obejas returned to Cuba. Being uprooted and the duality of identity are common themes in her work, particularly the hilarious We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? In one poignant vignette, Obejas describes her family’s first night in the United States after fleeing Cuba. “As I lie here wondering about the spectacle outside the window and the new world that awaits us on this and every night of the rest of our lives, even I know we’ve already come a long way. What none of us can measure is how much of the voyage is already behind us.”

Obejas is a founding member of the University of Chicago’s Creative Writing faculty and a blogger at WBEZ.org. This fall, she will be Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College in California.